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August 30, 2006

Fellowship Parkway

It looks like no more than a path of desire. Fellowship Parkway is one of those public streets in Echo Park that motorized vehicles are unable to use. All over the neighborhood, there are stair streets (which are stairways), streets that are pathways, streets that are used as no more than a driveway, and then, of course, there are paper streets. These are the streets that simply don’t exist. We are about to lose one of the paper streets (read wooded areas) near Elysian Park as an architect-developer plans to build two houses – she promises no more – on what has been a wooded clump of lots near Park Drive. Neighbors are watching anxiously lest any of the protected trees be disappeared.

Fellowship Parkway is an old street. Some of it exists as a stair street, but most is the aforementioned dirt path. One way to get to it is to follow a mostly hidden stair street (Lemoyne St.) past a number of houses tucked away in the woods. Then, when you get to the dirt path, follow it. It winds among hills and along a steep crevasse, steep enough that, on a recent walk, I carried my daughter past the spots where the trail narrowed. Many of the homes we passed are tiny cabins, with glorious views. This is the part of then neighborhood that once was known as the Semi-Tropics Spiritualists’ Tract, an early bohemian enclave (dating from around 1920). The Semi-Tropics Spiritualists’ Tract was in the northwestern corner of what is now Echo Park. It was favored by artists, musicians and activists.

Paul Landacre, a wood engraving artist who lived nearby for several decades, did many prints of the wildlife on the “Hill,” as the area also is known. Middleton Manigault, a painter who starved himself to death in his 30s and whose paintings now trade in the $90,000s, also lived on the Hill. The legendary bookseller and zeitgeist man of the 1920s and 30s, Jake Zeitlin’s name comes up repeatedly in reminiscences of the Hill.

According to Anothony L. Lehnman in "Paul Landacre: A Life and a Legacy," published by the rare book dealer Michael Dawson,

Modern City maps have yet to render accurately teh confusing cartography of the area, nor do the homeowners mind because the delivery-man's nightmare preserves the peace of their sanctuary.

Lehman wrote this in 1983. But I doubt the street looks any more modern today than it did then.

On our recent walk down Fellowship Parkway, we passed a house guarded by a pair of white, hard-working poddles. Then we headed into the pines, palm trees and walnuts that form the semi-natural, semi-imported fauna of the area. A single chair, covered by leaves sat in a lookout spot. There were a couple of lawnchairs – seemingly unused for quite some time, in another flat area beneath some trees. At one point the path splits in three, and there is no sure way to know which one is the parkway except to pick one and see where it goes.

August 28, 2006

Easily amused?

LotusSo far, most of the summer has been hasty and rushed. Pages flying off the calendar in fast motion. Days, opportunities, connections slip away. Truly. So when I saw that the Echo Park Film Center was having a one-evening showing of slow-motion films the event looked appealing. I liked the idea of slow. If nothing else I could say I went. Or I could meditate while images presented themselves to me on a slow-motion platter. My brain could rest.

So I left my daughter at home with my husband and went out to enjoy myself solo. Which I did thoroughly, somewhat to my surprise. It turned out to be quite a rich cinematic experience (this from someone who rushed out to see The Devil Wears Prada).

The evening was a hundred films of about one-minute each. Some were found footage, most of them were staged, some semi-animation. The degrees of slow-motion varied hugely. Much of the pleasure of watching them came from the juxtapositions of films.

Paper clips fell onto desks! Matches were lit! A man hammered a succession of glass panes. The inevitable mushroom cloud. In one of the funnier bits, a man and a woman played scrabble in real time. After a while the woman said, “Are you going to go?” A donkey brayed. A man dressed in a space-alien suit peered at his own reflection in shop window. Those were some of my favorites.

True, some of them felt like art school projects, but in itself that’s not so evil.

About fifteen people were in the theater. Echo Park Film Center refers to these events as microcinema. They made popcorn in a back room and passed around one single giant tub of it. After a while a man in an overcoat with a bouquet of flowers, smelling of strong spirits, had sole possession of the popcorn. I think he was French.

After about 65 or 70 films I began to feel impatient. So I went out to the street, got back into my pumpkin and sped home.

Photo: Driveway on Ewing St.
By Cindy Bennett

August 24, 2006


I find it impossible not to join the chorus on this one.

If you're reading this there's a good chance you've had a chance to see Kevin Roderick's rave review of Dave Zahniser's LA Weekly story "Welcome to Gentrification City." Dave's is a remarkable story -- not just for its geographic scope, which is beyond what weekly newspapers typically attempt. But for its moral scope, too. It shows how the forces that cause a city to change are unstoppable (like the weather). And it also shows how policy can shield us somewhat from some of the housing market's most unfortunate outcomes (read: ordinances that preserve rental units; creation of rent control, for starters).

Yay, Dave! And, yes, Mr. Zahniser is an Echo Park resident.

Here are two brief sketches of housing turnover on my block:

Next door to my house is a house that has been owned by a Salvadoran-American family for about two decades. The sons who were raised there served in the Marines and the Army. The first time I met their mother, Benita, she told me she had breast cancer that had metastasized, basically hello, I will be dying soon. We became friends in a way that was limited by age, socio-cultural backgrounds, life-expectancy. But we were neighbors, and we liked each other and I visited her a number of times at her home. She never came to mine.

During this time, she evicted a young artist who lived in the front house and wasn't paying his rent. Benita's brother cleaned the apartment, painted it, and they advertised it for rent. One day, Benita stopped to talk to me. She said she'd had a lot of calls about the apartment. She looked at me and said, "They are all white. Why are they all white?" I suppose she thought I might be able to answer the question because I am white. My response as I recall was, "yes, the neighborhood has become very popular with white people."

This was in 2000. She rented the apartment, one of two in the front house, to a young couple who were part of a well-known band called The Tyde. Ann and Darin moved in quietly and lived there quietly for about three years. They planted fancy plants in a sophisticated arrangement in front of their unit. They told me Benita's son did not like them. He was the same age as the tenants I would guess. Benita died about a year after Anna and Darin moved in. Her sons inherited the property. They are both young.

The younger son told us he planned to sell the property. He told The Tyde they had to move out. And then he moved into the apartment with his two small children and his partner. Shortly after moving in, he took a shovel and ripped out the plants Ann had planted. He went at them with a fury, as if they were some kind of enemy. A family member looked at the bare dirt where the plants had been and said to me, "[He] doesn't know what he's doing." But I think he did.

As for horsetail:

I have seen horsetail on my street, though I didn't know what it was called until today. Since 1999, when my husband and I bought our house, the horsetail house has been occupied by 1) a low-income family that was forced out when the landlord put the nearly derelict property up for sale. There is no question it was a tragedy for a family that was barely hanging on financially and could not hope to find a single family house for anywhere the same amount of rent. The house was empty for a while. Then the owner sold the house to 2) a man who hired some of the gangbangers in the neighborhood to raze the fruit trees that the previous family planted; the new property owner was in prison for most of the time that he owned the house.

While he was in prison he rented the place to a European rock band who wore insanely ridiculous and wonderful clothes and threw large parties; we were never sure who exactly lived there. Then the owner whom we never met flipped the place. 3) The most recent owners are a young couple (she is a musician of some repute) who have renovated the place -- planting horsetail being one of their very first improvements. They appear to be planning to stay for the longterm.

August 23, 2006

3 grebe chicks

On a stroll around Echo Park Lake yesterday my posse of two moms and two daughters saw not one but three grebe chicks, diving and dabbling in the murky water. I am assuming these are the pied-bill grebes that Martin Cox reported seeing. (See this week's Chicken Corner," Score 1 for grebes!") Also saw a bunch of mottled ducks, which look like Mallards, and in the same flock one white duck with tan spots and a long body. These ducks must be new to town because they swam away from us, despite the fact that we offered to toss half a leftover bagel in tiny bits.

On the human-machine side: some USC engineering students had a pair of robot water craft preparing to launch. The students cheerfully told us about the project. Maybe they thought we would feed them.

Maoists get ice cream

One of the less-happy signs of gentrification in Echo Park is that there seem to be fewer ice cream trucks. I don’t see anywhere near the number of hand-painted trucks playing the Macarena and driving around. Granted it was suspected that at least one of these trucks was an undercover police vehicle (not the one that played the Macarena), but I assume they still provided ice cream. These days, Chango coffeehouse has a selection of ice cream that includes mascarpone, green tea and strawberry-brown sugar ice creams. They are tasty and, as far as I know, uncontroversial.

But…Gearey, a cinematographer friend of mine who lived on Morton Avenue in Echo Park in the late 70s/early 80s tells me about the days when the best ice cream to be had in this area was the special fruit-flavored stuff at the Tropical Bakery. At that time, Art Goldberg was the unelected mayor of lefties in Echo Park. Goldberg is a well-known lawyer and the brother of Jackie Goldberg, the state assemblywoman, who still lives in Echo Park. In the days of the coop, Gearey says, Art loved to stir the pot – dancing mischievously in the breach between the Stalinists and the Maoists, the two camps who – more or less -- ran the cooperative. I doubt the Stalinists called themselves Stalinists, though they aligned themselves with Moscow. So goes the story.

The coop was located on Echo Park Avenue, in a storefront beneath the People’s Law Center, which is still there. An excellent Chinese bakery now occupies the coop space.

At one point, says Gearey, there was controversy because the Stalinists shunned the Tropical, the Cuban bakery that offered the aforementioned special fruit-flavored Cuban ice cream that was otherwise unavailable in the vicinity. I would say unavailable in the neighborhood except that the Tropical is located in Silver Lake. The Tropical, of course, was owned and frequented by Cubans who had fled Castro, which was offensive to the Stalinists, but the Mao folks didn’t care.

So the Maoists got ice cream. And the Stalinists…didn’t.

And, as for the Trotskyites…Until very recently, we did have one Echo Park resident who once was a bodyguard for Trotsky. Alexander Buchman was a photographer, an aerospace engineer and a former bodyguard in Mexico for Trotsky. He left his post in Mexico guarding Trotsky before the ice pick, though not before he had taken some stunning photographs of Trotsky, his wife, his rabbits and the countryside. Fototeka Gallery mounted two exhibitions (in 1999 and 2000, I think) of Buchman’s work after Buchman showed a massive store of negatives to gallery co-founder Merrick Morton. The archive had been stored in a closet for decades. GQ Magazine ran a lengthy article about Buchman after Fototeka’s show. Buchman died in 2003. He had lived in Echo Park since 1941.

As for coops, on my wish list for the neighborhood, an independent general-interest book store would be at the top, followed immediately by a food coop aligned politically only with the greens. But, as they say, be careful what you wish for….

August 21, 2006

Noisy auction

Shameless and a lot of fun. The Echo Park Historical Society silent auction was noisy enough that M.C. Christine Peters, a skilled orator, could barely be heard over the P.A. system in the back room of Metro Gallery and couldn’t be heard at all in the front. About 3/4s of the 60-some art pieces sold. There is no accounting for taste. A number of lotus photographs and other lotus imagery were redistributed around the neighborhood.

I thought I knew enough people but not until the auction did I realize that there were some holes in the friend-acquaintance-neighbors fabric of my life. In the midst of helping organize the event I have met some remarkable people who live in the neighborhood and seemed – from my perspective to be hiding. Never mind that they have been busy teaching and writing and making art. I guess I have been wearing rose-speckled glasses.

From poet and journalist Aleida Rodriguez I learned that the hill I descend regularly – where the Baxter Stairs are situated (see the photo of the dog in the chicken Corner box, above) – is named Kite Hill. According to Aleida, it got its name in the late 19th century, when local children used to climb it to fly kites. I googled around this morning and found an Echo Park Historical Society website reference to Kite Hill. Who knew? I also found a short story called Kite Hill, by Jordan Elgrably, a writer who used to live in Echo Park and whom I met once at a going-away party for a friend who was moving to Beirut.

While putting together the auction I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Frimkess Wolff, an artist and Los Angeles native who moved from Venice to Echo Park. Karen does sound sculpture as well as painting and drawing, and has for many years taught art at the Braille Institute for the Blind. She and her husband live on a dusty cul de sac -- very Echo Park -- from which they have a broad view of Kite Hill. I hope to talk Karen into sharing her thoughts on art and teaching with Chicken Corner in the near future.

August 19, 2006

Score 1 for grebes!

Echo Park corner
The image above as well as the news below are from photographer Martin Cox, who has a print for sale in tonight's Echo Park Historical Society art auction at Metro Gallery.

Martin writes:

Here is an image from my "lake surface" series -- sometimes it seems the lake reacts to news events, and this somber face was in regard to the J. Lo news.

But, regarding the Lake there is some good news. A close observer of Echo Park Lake wildlife, Cox reports that

the somewhat shy Pied-billed Grebes have had a chick, which has come from the protection of the Lotus (where they nested) to the deep end for diving training from parents.

Go grebes! I hope I get a chance to see them on my next stroll around the Lake.

August 17, 2006

No no J. Lo!

An anonymous tipster (who happens to be my husband) forwards the following from the Defamer blog:

J. Lo To Exploit Hipsters In Neighborhood Her Manager Tells Her Is "Next Big Thing"

Eastsiders, despair, for your Hollywood nightmare, which you'd naively hoped had ended with the almost simultaneous premiere and cancellation of the Silver Lake-set UPN abomination Sex, Love & Secrets may begin anew. According to today's Variety, Jennifer Lopez and FX are pressing even further east on Sunset Boulevard for an Echo Park pilot, "a comedic look at the world of yuppie, Latino and hipster cultures within Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood." We don't expect that J. Lo herself will be involved enough to set foot on a location shoot, but should she decide to "see what some of these hippie things look like" during the filming of a particularly hilarious, cross-cultural interaction between a shitfaced Little Joy's patron and the wise-cracking guy trying to sell him a tamale, be prepared to drive her back west by setting ablaze the [pick two of three: sweatbands/leg warmers/cowboy-boots-and-gym-shorts set] you've dipped in gasoline and hurling it at her and her interloping entourage.

Community Jam/Eric in the Navy

My fellow neighborhood blogger at Echo Park, California reports that Eric Garcetti is spending his vacation in the Navy -- in naval intelligence training. While Eric says he’s doing it in part because he might want to run for Congress and this is supposed to be good prep (that’s how he explained the odd interpretation of R&R to the LA TImes), I wonder if he has other motives. It occurs to me that the historic Boathouse is being restored, lots of money going into that project (thanks in large part to Xavier Becerra). And suddenly I have to ask myself if our councilman envisions himself Captain of Echo Park Lake, requisitioning an outboard dragon boat and keeping order among the paddleboaters. At the very least, I have to ask if he plans to return to office with a tattoo. Only Eric knows for sure. Disclaimer: this was previously reported in Los Angeles magazine by LA Observed's Kevin Roderick.

The following just in from Machine Project:

Dear Friends,

Sunday August 20th from 12 - 3pm The Fallen Fruit collective will conduct a Public Jam at Machine, in which they collaborate with the citizens of Los Angeles in a communal jam-making session. We ask that you bring along any of your home-grown or public fruit (see and any clean, empty glass jars you have. At the end everyone will leave with a jar of communal jam. If enough people bring surplus, even the empty handed will leave with jam. Vats of fun for all!

The kinds of jam we make will improvise on the fruit that people provide. The fruit can be fresh or frozen. Fallen fruit will bring public fruit. We are looking for radical and experimental jams as well, like basil gauva or lemon pepper jelly. We’ll discuss the basics of jam and jelly making, pectin and bindings, as well as the communal power of shared fruit and the liberation of public fruit.



ps. our friend Michael O’ Malley will be baking some bread for on-site toast...

Machine Project occupies the storefront on Alvarado (between Reservoir and Sunset) between the Downbeat Cafe (which is one of the best places in the world) and Echo Park Film Center. Last time I peeked into the doorway I saw a table lined with 6-or-8-of-a-kind devices that looked like a cross between a hole punching machine, a telephone and a microphone. On the whiteboard were technical looking diagrams and notes. Snaking along the walls and then across the ceiling was a clear plastic pneumatic (I assume) tube that led to a clear basin inside of which was U.S. paper currency. Last week the table inside had a sewing machine on it.

So I check for clues as to what the Machine may be up to. Then I lead my daughter, Madeleine, into the Downbeat Cafe. The Downbeat is managed by a visual artist named Dakota Bertrand, who has also worked as an apprentice baker at La Brea Bakery. Dakota sometimes bakes tiny cookies for toddlers who come in the morning. Off the menu of course. I have a weakness for comparison and ranking (lazy and unreliable shortcuts to useful observation) and so, in comparing the Downbeat to Chango, Echo Park's other signature hangout, I note broadly that the Downbeat seems to be the away-from-home office for visual artists and dancers whereas Chango attracts musicians and style mavens. So how do I explain that I frequent both, unless it's to note that I belong to neither category? Writers seem to favor both places.

At the Downbeat, my daughter and I have a date to meet our friend Angela and her 11-month-old daughter, Willoughby, who live across the street from us. We see each other at least twice a day if only in passing but still make plans to get together on the other side of the neighborhood. Today Angela, a film editor by trade, brings with her a children's book that she has rewritten by cutting out images in the book and re-taping them on different pages, improving the content by over 100 percent. The book was titled "Whose Baby Am I?" and showed pictures of various animals and their babies who looked exactly like the mothers. Angela leaves the book at the cafe, among the other (mostly adult) books that patrons drop off from time to time. Blues and swing plays over the speakers. Madeleine and I share a baguette with butter. And then it's time to roll down to the Lake to see what the lotus are up to on hazy August morning.

August 15, 2006

Silent auction

Lotus By happy accident I am involved in staging an art-auction fundraiser for the Echo Park Historical Society. It’s going to be held this week at Metro Gallery on Hyperion in Silver Lake. Metro is owned by Juan Garcia, who lives in Echo Park. Juan offered use of the gallery in the first auction planning meeting. All present said yes, and I never thought about it again except to be grateful until I heard that people are asking why the event is not being held at one of the galleries in Echo Park proper. It’s a fair question, and, as I said, one that wasn’t asked in committee. I know that I for one was glad to have walls and a roof for the event. After all, we may have had to hold it in Elysian Park, with each piece of art being held aloft by a designated volunteer, which would transformed a simple silent art-auction fundraiser into a dance-performance-art-auction evening under the stars. And I don’t think we could have served wine and beer in the park. But it would have been a lovely sight, all of that art swaying in the arms of our friends.

And what if the event is held outside the walls of Echo? Does it dilute our self-conception? Compromise the boundaries? Do we ask the taggers, or the real estate agents who have dropped the effort to call Echo Park Silver Lake or, at the least, Silver Lake-adjacent?

As for the galleries, most of the Echo Park galleries have moved downtown. Or closed. The commercial gallery scene in Echo Park has been replaced by boutiques, for the moment at least. Granted, many of the boutiques use their wall space to show artists work. And the coffeehouse Chango right now has an exhibition by an artist named Bonaparte who is quite good – and obviously prolific, judging by the huge number of works cramming the walls.

The neighborhood has no shortage of artists in residence. And there are numerous studios that are sometimes used as galleries. But I know of none large enough for what we were planning. So the interstate highway of friendship and personal connections led us out of the neighborhood -- to Silver Lake! – to honor Echo Park.

The art auction will open August 16, with a “gala” closing on Saturday, August 19 from 7 to 10 pm. Free valet parking; $5 requested at the door.
Metro Gallery: 1835 Hyperion Avenue, Los Angeles.

Not for sale: Garage door mural on Echo Park Blvd.
Photo by Cindy Bennett

August 14, 2006

Slick Ric on W&P

One third of the hyrda-headed comedy monster Culture Clash, Ric Salinas plays the character Norte-Sur in the ensemble’s most recent theater piece, Water & Power at the Taper. Last week, Chicken Corner peppered Culture Clash's Richard Montoya with queries about Echo Park and the new play. This week, the conversation continues as Salinas bats around similar queries.

Chicken Corner: When I ran into you recently (in Silver Lake) you said that after the previews of “Water & Power,” Culture Clash decided to drop some of the jokes because there were too many laughs, at the expense of the larger story. As someone who has performed in so many pieces that are basically built out of laughter how does it feel to have cut back on it? Does it make the experience of performing Norte-Sur’s role fundamentally different?

Ric Salinas: Yes, we've toned down the first 10 minutes of the play because of the giddy laughter from our fans that expect to see a classic C.C. show. It just makes sense to keep the humor tight and to more importantly tell this modern noir story. There are still many humorous moments, Soprano-style humor. I'm enjoying not having to rely on jokes as a way to keep an audience involved. A new refreshing approach for Culture Clash; we've got to keep re-inventing ourselves. Except for our other world premiere play, "Zorro in Hell" is a throw back to our old days; it's a little like Spamalot! We mount that play the week we close "W&P" at the taper. We head for La Jolla Playhouse to don the mask for San Diego County and Tijuana.

You are a resident of Silver Lake. How would you characterize the difference between Silver Lake and Echo Park?

Silverlake has Trader Joes and Echo Park used to have Pioneer Market. When Pioneer Market was still around, that's how I would characterize as the difference between both hoods. I would sometimes call Pioneer Market, emigrant market. But now there is a Walgreens, so is Echo Park turning into a Silver Lake?

Chicken Corner: I have heard that you visit Echo Park on occasion – that you are sometimes seen in the French restaurant Taix shouting very loudly at the television. Can you explain?

Ric Salinas: Taix is Culture Clash's "Cheers Bar." Everyone knows our name. Taix for me can be many things, a great place for dinner, draft beer, meeting place, martini lounge, alt music scene, and a sports bar, all in one. And yes, I've been known to yell at the TV during a sports event!

Chicken Corner: If you were going to draw a map of Echo Park look like? Where would it start and end? What are your personal landmarks?

RIc Salinas: If I were to draw a map of Echo Park it would look like Arkansas: starting from the Hollywood Freeway, up Benton to the 5 Freeway, across Elysian Park and crossing down Figueroa. My favorite landmark would be Echo Park Lake with the paddle boats, the bridge, the lotus, the fountain in the middle of the lake, fishing, jogging and the view of Downtown L.A. (except for that one incident: the paddle boat drive-by. Of course they were caught!).

Chicken Corner: Do you miss Carmelos, on Sunset and Lemoyne?

Ric Salinas: Yes I miss the cafe con leche from Carmelos! But I think the new place Masa is great.

Chicken Corner: Which do you prefer, the Downbeat Café or Chango?

Ric Salinas: I prefer the Downbeat Cafe.

Chicken Corner: Did you ever spend time at the short stop before it changed hands? Have you been there since it turned into a hipster bar?

Ric Salinas: Yes I went to the Shortstop when it was a COP BAR. Ouch. The best thing about the new hipster Shortstop is that I can shake my groove thang on the dance floor! After several draft beers of course.

Chicken Corner: Chavez Ravine, which also was performed at the Taper, was basically a comedy-cum-performance piece-cum-history lesson with a serious message. It made use of Culture Clash’s traditional versatility with ensemble members playing multiple characters. Water & Power is more of a traditional theater piece. Can you talk about why you chose the different approach for this piece?

Ric Salinas: "Water and Power" is the first time Culture Clash members are playing one role each throughout the whole play. These are characters that have an arc and extensive dialogue scenes. We have wanted to do this type of play for many years. "Chavez Ravine" was the pinnacle of all the tricks up our sleeve, meaning that, it had all the elements that we've employed in previous shows but under one tent. In "Chavez" we did write comedic scenes, historical scenes, and material that we got through interviews of the actual players of that incident, plus tons of research material from USC library and L.A. Times transcripts and articles.

"W&P" was written by Richard Montoya with dramaturgy by Salinas and Siguenza and the piece has elements of the brotherhood that Culture Clash has with each other. One of the downfalls of being a "Comedy Troupe" is that many times we are not taken serious by our peers or fans or academics or the "industry" because we are thought of as an improv group. We write every sigh, gesture, vowel, word, punchline, monolgue and we play each note as a jazz musician would, with a little wiggle room for improv. And on that note, we are not taken serious on our acting. Once we started doing the "site-specific" work and we portrayed real people, then the perception changed a bit. Now with this play, we are now being told that we are doing "real" theater. Sorry to say, but we've been doing "real" theater for 22 years now.

Chicken Corner: What do you think of Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine CD? Do you think he should have acknowledged Culture Clash’s “Chavez Ravine,” which preceded Cooder’s work?

Ric Salinas: Mr. Ry Cooder could have mentioned us in his extensive line notes, since he saw our play and sat in the front row, he should have known better; throw us a bone, man!

Chicken Corner: Are you familiar with Don Normark’s Chavez Ravine photos?

Ric Salinas: Don Normark's photos were a huge inspiration for us. We got to write the movie!

Chicken Corner: How did you approach the development of the character Norte-Sur? Was there a particular person you know that informed your choices?

Ric Salinas: Norte/Sur is composite of many people we know throughout our travels. He is Rafas, the biker veterano of San Diego's Logan who's bike club is called Los Cabrones. He is also Travieso, a wheelchair vato that we met at Father Greg Boyle's Hommie Industries. He's barrio philosophers that we've met in the Southwest and New York's Lower East Side. He's the brainchild of Richard Montoya. He's Richard's dad Jose Montoya. And he's a little of me, Slick Ric from San Francisco's Mission District.

August 10, 2006

Which Way, EP?

In response to my response to the NYTimes idea that "Echo Park is in the early thoes of gentrification" a friend send me the following LA Times story written by Dial Torgerson in September, 1971 -- about gentrification and downward mobility in Echo Park. (Thanks, ProQuest!) "Echo Park is becoming a near-slum and a much-in-demand middle-class community at the same time," the story says. Headlined, "Which Way for Echo Park --- Inner City Oasis or Slum?" the story reads:

Change is coming to Echo Park, too: puzzling changes now being studied by sociologists, demosgraphers, city planners -- and, inevitablty, real estate developers--as a key to the Central City's outer fringe.

Would that they could see us now.

Montoya on the Echo

In recent days, Culture Clash’s play "Water & Power" has received a great deal of attention – including in LA Observed. Yesterday, I tracked down Richard Montoya, W & P’s author and one of the principal players, for the following micro-interview. Montoya is a resident of Echo Park.

CHICKEN CORNER: Why did you choose the Paradise Motel, on Sunset Boulevard, as the setting for most of Water & Power?

RICHARD MONTOYA: I love that place, it creeps me out, and it is strangely lovely in the rain. All that purple.

CHICKEN CORNER: If you could redesign the county seal (on Water & Power vehicles, for example) what would it look like?

RICHARD MONTOYA: It would be the manhole cover in the show graphic.
More ominous and scary.

Chicken Corner: Do you miss Carmelos, the Cuban diner, on Sunset and Lemoyne?

Richard Montoya: I like Masa [the restaurant that replaced Carmelos]. Things are going to change and the Cuban places were not that friendly. Sorry, I like that there is still a tortilla factory and should that ever change to another American Apparel I would be pissed.

CHICKEN CORNER: Which do you prefer, the Downbeat Café or Chango?

RICHARD MONTOYA: The Downbeat is closer but I like the funkiness of Chango, I meet my actor buddy Roger Smith there, and it’s fun and beautiful to walk thru the Echo - we saw an entire
family packing their Aztec headdresses into a Hugo. That is magic realism.

CHICKEN CORNER: Did the Ramparts scandal inform your creation of Power’s character in any way?

RICHARD MONTOYA: Of course it did. I am haunted by the death of Biggie Smalls as I am Elliott Smith who lived and recorded in Echo.

CHICKEN CORNER: Did you ever spend time at the Short Stop, the former LAPD hangout, which was made notorious in the midst of the Ramparts scandal, before it changed hands? Have you
been there since it turned into a hipster bar?

RICHARD MONTOYA: I liked the cop bar more sometimes.
Hipsters can be annoying, but I like the mix of them and everybody else.

CHICKEN CORNER: “Chavez Ravine,” which also was performed at the Taper, was basically a comedy-cum-performance piece-cum-history lesson with a serious message. It made use of Culture Clash’s traditional versatility with ensemble members playing multiple characters. “Water & Power” is more of a traditional theater piece. Can you talk about why you chose the different approach for this piece?

RICHARD MONTOYA: I was tired of doing the same ol, and I could not write this with the group. Its personal, and I cannot ask for
permission if I feel I want to say something. As it was I had to fight and defend a lot of work in W/P, and it gets tiring.

CHICKEN CORNER: What do you think of Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine CD? Do you think he should have acknowledged Culture Clash’s “Chavez Ravine,” which preceded Cooder’s work?

RICHARD MONTOYA: He should have. We saw him at a Los Lobos event, and he was a bit defensive. It’s a good album. He saw our show more than once. He could have mentioned us. He's an old hipster, and I find that that is kind of a hipster mentality, me cool, me important, me wear ipod. Ambition is talked a lot about in W/P. I am sick of all types of ambition in rappers, hipsters and Hispanics…. Ry did not know who Frank Wilkinson was til that show.

CHICKEN CORNER: Are you familiar with Don Normark’s Chavez Ravine photos?

RICHARD MONTOYA: Great book, a real source for us.

CHICKEN CORNER: Would you agree that a strong sense of place is characteristic of your writing and performance style?

RICHARD MONTOYA: Abso-freaken-lootley.

CHICKEN CORNER: Whom would you consider the mayor of Echo Park?

RICHARD MONTOYA: The statue of the Lady of Angels at Echo Park Lake. She is lovely.

CHICKEN CORNER: Do you agree with the folks who say that Angeleno Heights is a separate neighborhood and shouldn’t be called Echo Park?

RICHARD MONTOYA: It should be called Echo Heights.

CHICKEN CORNER: If you could draw a map of Echo Park what would it look like? Any landmarks in particular?

RICHARD MONTOYA: I love the Echo on Wednesday nights. It's the last truly multi-culti night in the city. The entire LA area comes to dance peaceful regae, and it is lovely. For live music and quasi French tude I love Taix for nightly music and a real French waiter named Bernard who is a man's man and a ladies' man -- old school charm.

August 9, 2006


It was the first time I remember seeing an audience that looked just like people in the film. Coming out of the Laemmles theater that had just shown Quinceanera on Sunday there was a line at the inside door to the theater: people waiting for seats. It was teenage Latino couples, gay couples of various races, Latino grandmothers with their children and grandchildren, hipsters of various races, parents. Le tout Echo Park. They all came to Pasadena to see the movie. And it wasn’t even hot weather this Sunday.

Quiceanera was sentimental but moving nonetheless. And, as billed, Echo Park plays one of the starring roles. (Even though some of the locations were easily recognizable as Silver Lake: Micheltorena School, Sun Lake Drugs….) Lots of vanity “close-ups” of the neighborhood – shots of shops on Sunset Boulevard, a well-known view spot of Downtown from Elysian Park.

LA Alternative Press has a very good feature story on the film and its creators (much about whom has been written recently). But the New York Times's Stephen Holden, who praises the film, made me sigh with the following:

“Quinceańera,” a portrait of a Mexican-American family in Los Angeles, is as smart and warmhearted an exploration of an upwardly mobile immigrant culture as American independent cinema has produced. Set in Echo Park, a working-class Latino neighborhood in the early throes of gentrification, it has a wonderfully organic feel for the fluid interaction of cultures and generations in the Southern California melting pot.

I’m glad Holden liked the film, but I don’t know where he gets “the early throes of gentrification” from. As far as gentrification goes there truly is no before-and-after in Echo Park. The neighborhood is far more complex than that. In fact, it started out in the 1890s as an expensive place. And there have been artists and other improvers here for decades. Even the most recent wave of gentrification is well over a decade old. Argument could be made that the commies of old (i.e., the 1950s) were gentrifiers.

The film pushes the G question (gentrification) hard enough to make this resident flinch, despite the fact that it’s not a new question. Ever since property values started rising fast enough that landlords began selling and pushing out tenants (not all of them Latino, of course) it’s been unstable moral territory for people who own their homes in Echo Park. More on this subject in the days weeks months (who knows, maybe years) of Chicken Corner to come.

So, the day after seeing the movie I took a walk down to the site off of Alvarado where two blocks of homes have been seized (for lack of a happier word) by the LAUSD. I wanted to describe the scene and the situation, in which almost 200 people have lost their homes to make way for a school that is not needed (as enrollment has dropped drastically – a partial result of gentrification perhaps). It’s a case in which a behemoth bureaucracy stomps on a neighborhood as though the agency were some kind of blind and malignant Bigfoot. The people displaced were working class immigrant families. Their homes were not fancy. The LAUSD’s experts said the homes were without cultural or historic merit. (Disclaimer: The Echo Park Historical Society, of which I am a board member, is currently involved in a lawsuit, the purpose of which is to force the LAUSD to do a proper environmental review, which was never done.) Council Presidnet Garcetti opposes the project and says the LAUSD will not be granted a street vacation, which would be required for the school to be build. The city’s Department of Transportation also opposes the project. There is a minuscule chance the people who sold their homes or rented them can come back.

My friend Cindy Bennett was with me, taking photographs, and my daughter was there, too. I took some notes. The houses sit behind chain-link fence that sits in front of the houses’ own fences – fences around fences we have here. There are no trespassing signs. Several weeks after all but a few holdouts left, the houses look freshly abandoned. There is dusty mail in a couple of mailboxes. Potted succulents still alive on a porch. Curtains in some windows. Plywood in others.

People who drove past us on the quiet street wanted to know what we were doing. A fireman from the station that looks across Mohawk Street at part of the site asked if we were from the LAUSD. A young man named Daniel came by. He looked like a well-scrubbed hipster, though young, and said that he worked with outreach programs at the Methodist Church at the corner of Reservoir and Alvarado, two blocks away. His first question was, “Are you here to document the gentrification of the neighborhood?”

August 7, 2006

Sonic lotus

Photographer and longtime Echo Park resident Martin Cox sends me the following (and I say yes!):


Author Tadahiko Imada wrote


In the early Showa period (1925-1989), people gathered to listen to the sound of the bloom of a lotus flower at Sinobazu-no-ike pond in Tokyo, in the early summer. However, the frequency of that sound is approximately 9-16 Hz. As humans normally hear sounds within a frequency range from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, people were unable to actually hear the sound of the bloom of a lotus flower. But they loved and wanted to listen to that phantom sound. The experience was a kind of communal auditory hallucination.

Inspired by the above I am proposing the following conceptual event:

EVENT: Self-guided Auditory Hallucination in Echo Park

WHERE: The Lotus Bed in Echo Park Lake at Glendale Blvd. and Park Ave
in Los Angeles, CA 90026

If you see me singing it's the song of the lotus....But hurry. I'm not sure for how much longer this season the lotus will continue to bloom.

Martin, who I met a few years ago when Fototeka Gallery mounted an exhibition of his work, has lived in Echo Park since 1989. A witness to the recently accelerated gentrification of the neighborhood, he emailed me some thoughts about the neighborhood:

I moved here from SF, and before that, London. In Echo Park I found a deeper enthusiasm for place, for non-conglomate alternative small town in a big city ways of living, a place where enthusiasm for capitalism was questioned under giant dusty tropical leaves surrounded by fallen backyard fruit.

I remember in 1993 seeing a white jogger in fully logo-ed training
outfit, running around the lake, I thought it was all over. But it was not.
Then, when Starbucks opened on Alvarado, it seemed the end.
When Pioneer Supermarket shut, I really thought we were through.
But somehow EP has absorbed these changes and still forges a distinct
personality and vibe quite different from Silverlake or other
surrounding communities. But I wonder for how long, as ever more
luxury cars edge down our tatty streets, will every shack becomes a
make over marvel?

I don't know what it will become, but Echo Park has been my longest
home ever, and my arrival here as a poor white european lefty artist
may have been just as much part of the change that I now complain of.

My focus has lately centered on the actual park and lake itself.
I walk its winding paths each day. With wonder I watched not one, but two pairs of Canada geese raise their
goslings, teach them to fly and leave the lake. I also saw a litter of
Mallard chicks stolen by greedy children, evidence of
turtles smashed by tormented people, fully loaded trash cans dumped
into the lake. The joyful red bridge, Echo Lake's most picturesque
detail, was painted a corrective drab green, the same green as the
leaves, the trees and even the eerie water itself. Lacking contrast
with the park, the bridge has all but vanished as a feature,
invisible to drivers on Glendale Blvd. I heard that this was the
"proper" colour that the Victorians would had chosen. Victorians
were certainly not right about a lot of things and this disappointing
decision has taken the jewel from the crown of Echo lake.

August 4, 2006

Paradise, a monument

The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power Building (AKA the John Ferraro Building) stands there looking like a cool embodiment of the inevitable: solidly rooted, complacent if guilty at the tail end of a severe heat wave. Coincidence? I wonder as I stare up at the building from the hardscape between the Opera house and the Taper theater. I was waiting to enter the Taper to see Culture Clash’s new play “Water & Power,” by Richard Montoya, and now in previews. In a calculated step out on a limb, the Taper actually commissioned “Water & Power” and promised the piece in brochures before it was written, according to the Weekly. Granted, it was a sturdy limb onto which the Taper ventured -- pre-tested by Culture Clash’s “Chavez Ravine” and taking into account that in the world of comedy troupes Culture Clash are a kind of landmark edifice themselves.

In the play, Water and Power are twins, named after the city agency where their father is an employee.

So, my friend Kay and I are waiting for chimes to sound. The DWP building looms – a monument to the dark side of LA: guilty and judgmental all at once.

The preview crowd is buzzing, literally. Chic, a little groovier than usual. Milling in front of the theater, I see a number of faces of the type that you view through the one-way, magic mirror, the kind where you don’t see your own reflection. After 16 years in Los Angeles I have mostly lost the impulse to say, “Hi! You look familiar!” Except sometimes I forget. The nerd in me is quite at home.

The play – which is hilarious and riveting, if a bit overwritten – is set at a motel (clearly the Paradise Motel) that happens to be on the outer edge of Echo Park.

“The loneliest mile of Sunset,” says Power of the dive he has made his final headquarters, waiting to be shot by LAPD sharp (or dull) shooters.

On my way home to Echo Park I drive past the Paradise Motel. It's about a half mile from the Taper. The motel has one of the best neon signs in the city. Glowing purple, a single line from end to end. In daylight the following afternoon it looks more prosaic. It’s clean and tidy, with fresh paint and doors about five feet from the parking spots in front of them. There is a sign that says “24 Hours,” another sign promises color TV, and there is a bare, steep hillside rising behind the attached rooms. Behind the hillside is a set of tan apartment blocks. It looks like Tijuana.

Now that the play is opening, Paradise is a landmark, too.

August 3, 2006

Chicken Corner

chickencornercafe.jpgChicken Corner is the name of a place that does and does not exist, which puts it right in league with a web “site” that’s all about a neighborhood. Technically, Chicken Corner sits at Echo Park Avenue and Delta Street, across from the Magic Gas gas station and Morton Avenue. For generations, this crossroads has been one of the nerve centers of the neighborhood. It has been a gang hangout, a drug market, an art gallery scene and now a fashion/indie rock scene, as well as a place where a lot of families have lived. Not everyone in the area knows or accepts the name Chicken Corner.

The place I call Chicken Corner is named after an Aaron Donovan mural that showed a bunch of unusual chickens. Hard-eyed chickens, one of them in leather, multicolored, painted in 1997 or ’98 without a permit (I assume – but don’t quote me on that) and occasionally tagged and otherwise assaulted. (At one point someone tossed about a quart of tan paint over it and at least one of the chickens disappeared forever.) The mural was titled, forgettably, “Moron.” When the Chango coffee house opened in 2004, its owners blasted out the mural in order to create a window on the side of the building. A two-foot-wide (a guess) sliver of the mural remains on the building. Other pieces of it are mounted inside the coffee house in a sort of mosaic homage-slash-apology to the people who wanted the mural to stay. The day the chickens were blasted, neighborhood folks grabbed pieces of it. There are shards at homes all around the neighborhood. I have two in my yard, though I didn’t get there fast enough to nab anything recognizeable. By then the name Chicken Corner had been well-established for four or five years.

In the late 1990s, Aaron Donovan, and his partner ran the Delirium Tremens art Gallery, which was one of five storefront galleries at the base of the Del Mor apartment building facing Echo Park Avenue. The mural was painted on cinderblock on the Delta Street side of the building. It faced an open lot where chickens and goats lived. At one point, it was called a ranch – there was said to be a horse. This lot has been sold twice. Condominiums will be built there soon.

The gallery scene was fast and furious. It arrived in 1998 with the opening of Ojala Gallery, which was followed by Fototeka, Delirium Tremens and others. A handbag studio sometimes hung shows to coincide with group openings, there was a clothing store, Show Pony, which remains, and for a while there was a tiny book store. Group openings took place the first Saturday of each month, and drew hundreds of people from outside the neighborhood as well as within. (Disclaimer: I wrote press releases for Fototeka Gallery for about three years.) Ojala Gallery sold “Chicken Corner” T-shirts. The galleries put chairs out on the sidewalk, and on weekends people visited during the day and hung out.

By 2003, all of the galleries were leaving soon or gone. A couple of them moved to other locations. Now the storefronts are occupied by a salon and several boutiques as well as El Batey, the grocery store that was cut in half to allow space for the coffee house. Chango now is the hipster ground zero of the neighborhood, groovier than the gallery days – almost alienatingly so, to my surprise -- but still a place where I run into neighbors.

Recently, a friend of mine walked into Chango. He was wearing a Chicken Corner T-shirt. The clerk, standing behind the chicken mural mosaic, looked at the T-shirt and asked, “Where is Chicken Corner?”

Photo: Cindy Bennett

August 2, 2006

Vintage slime/A beautiful park

Echo Park lotusEcho Park Lake, the heat has broken. I walk down to the Lake with my daughter. The lotus flowers are now, gloriously, almost in full bloom, their huge satellite-receiver leaves tilting toward outer space — "they missed the Lotus festival in mid-July, a result of cool spring weather, said the LA Times. The lotus thrive in slime, which makes me worry that when the city cleans the lake — Prop O funds are earmarked for the project — what will they do to preserve the lotus bed? Will they scour the lakebed and then add new slime to replace the toxic sludge they just spent zillions to scoop out? No imported slime could be quite the same as what we have spent decades developing here at Echo Park Lake. Piles of rice, fast food leavings, an occasional human corpse, bread and other treats for the ducks, decades of bird guano and turtle droppings and the garbage that people throw in just because they're brutal and don't care about clean water or because they're drunk. You can't import that! It's like San Francisco sour dough starter — you can' keep it going in Los Angeles! The air is too dry.

In all seriousness, I am thrilled they will clean the water at the lake, but I am concerned about the lotus and the turtles, water fowl and the residents who may have to wait a long time before the lake reopens.

So we pass the lotus flowers. I am thinking: I can see why these flowers have been depicted in religious art, beginning with the ancient Egyptians. My daughter, in her stroller, is chanting, "ducks, ducks." It's August now, and about half of the wild ducks have migrated, the American Wigeons, black-and white ring necks and others whose names I don't know, the small black water fowl with huge green feet — they are gone. What remains are restaurant ducks (very cute, the big white ones), and a few mallards. Earlier this year there were several ducks of mixed breed — white ones with black speckles or with tan color points, very beautiful -- but they are gone, too. I'll look for them when it gets cold up north (if it gets cold up north).

On the lake a single rented paddleboat tools around. There is a man seated on the grass with a music book open in front of him. He is playing acoustic guitar and singing. I'd like to stop and listen, and we do for about ten seconds, but it is clear that he is practicing, and I do not want to invade.

The geese are sunning on the island. There's even a little gaggle of ducklings. My daughter and I crouch next to a tree at the edge of the water to see the babies. They are downy and they look untainted by the filthy water -- unlike the turtles, which have strange black crust adhering to their shells.

A man with glassy eyes approaches.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he says. "I like your baby."

I meet his eyes and then pick up my daughter under one arm, pushing her stroller with the other, and we hurry away toward the play area to join the grandmothers and the little kids, at the north end of the park. So long, ducklings. Behind us, the man yells one more time, "I'm sorry!" Why he is sorry I do not care to know, though I wonder if it's for looking at us when I clearly prefer to be invisible to him. Or maybe it's an accusation, along the same lines.

I think about it for the length of time it takes me to get to the play-pit. There, my daughter plays with a child she has just met and who speaks to her in English, though the little girl calls out to her grandmother in Spanish.

I have been sitting next to the grandmother, in the shade of a royal palm, for about ten minutes when we hear a sudden loud crack, then more cracking, then the sound of an enormous eucalyptus branch starting to fall. The tree is about fifty feet from the play-pit. I look up, searching for the trimming crew and have just enough time to comprehend that there is none before the massive limb falls to the ground, which it smacks with tremendous force, its smaller branches bouncing before settling. Everything stops in the play area. There are some comments, all in Spanish. I understand just enough — about how a child could have been killed, the branch weighs as much as a truck. And then it's back to normal. The kids play. The women watch them. The grandmother says something to me in Spanish that I do not completely understand, something about the branch. I agree, yes it was very dangerous. We both nod and raise our eyebrows. When the ice cream vendor rolls his cart close to us she buys her granddaughter an ice cream bar. She sees that I am not getting one for my daughter, and she asks if she can buy one for her.

While I am not looking a pair of park and rec stay-away boards with orange stripes are quietly propped next to the branch, as though it could fall again.


August 1, 2006

The age of architecture

The first time I saw residential Echo Park/Elysian Heights I thought, this place has been forgotten. It was as if, when you turned north off of Sunset, you slipped over an invisible edge and drove into a small town, with a wide winding central Avenue and independent shops scattered from block to block. Only the later model cars served as calendar markers. The houses were old. There was a deco gas station, which hadn't functioned in decades, but which had stood in place, unconverted (it is now for sale). There was graffiti and houses with junk piles in their front yards. You could hear chickens, and there were goats.

Clearly there was not enough money here to tear down the old houses. It was the kind of place where buildings were adapted and re-adapted by small-business people who didn't get their financing from the bank. It reminded me of Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1988. The more money in a neighborhood, the more private its citizens, the less memory. Until recently, Echo Park could be described as Mexican-American and Cuban-American working class — despite the presence of the old-garde avant garde, who were here since the 1910s.

It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. It is well-documented.

I won't bore you — and myself — by going into detail about rising real-estate "values"ť and gentrification, a neighborhood in transition. Even the slowest-moving burg is always in transition (See: Heraclitus, stepping into the same river twice). But it's happening, and as much I would like to consider myself a case apart, I am part of it. It is no longer rare to see new model Audis, BMWs etceteras rolling along the narrow streets here. (I drive a slightly dented Jetta.) So many of the old bungalows have been re-built, palettes are changing, Europeans are renting, spec houses on tiny lots are going up.

It's the rebuilding that gets my attention most of all.

Unlike neighboring Silver Lake, Echo Park is largely a neighborhood of small cottages and bungalows — and many classic bungalow courts. Houses that often date from before the turn of the previous century. When we look to preservation, we are not just looking at style but scale. Very few big houses find a reason to be built here. Interestingly, this results in a perpetuation of the creative spirit of the neighborhood — the neighborhood is swarming these days with architect-residents, the majority of them young and hungry for projects, looking to preserve as well as reshape, with clients that don't have the budget or desire for a castle on the hill. People who actually like the neighborhood.

At its quarterly meeting on Saturday, the Echo Park Historical Society went modern with presentations that focused on brand new houses and apartments. (Disclaimer: I am on the board of the EPHS.) Among the presenters was Barry Milofski of M2A Architects who recently built a genuinely attractive HUD-sponsored building in Echo Park and Louis Molina of TM Works, which is based in Echo Park.

Molina and his partner, Laurent Turin, took a dilapidated firetrap wood shack at 1528 Echo Park Avenue and turned it into something elegant. Bright, modern-looking but respectfully in scale with the houses that surround it.

As Molina told the EPHS, the most sustainable structure is one that's already been built, because the base materials already exist, don't have to be moved.

As for respecting the neighborhood, Molina points to the land as his start source in his goal to create houses that shelter but are not "indoors spaces."ť The specific breeze and sun conditions of Echo Park, the steep hills are his start points. He avoids creating front doors.

Note: as the EPHS was having its quarterly meeting, there was another gathering scheduled, less than half a mile away, that also dealt with the changing urban landscape in Echo Park. This meeting — as I understand -- addressed the concerns of many residents that low-income families are being priced out of the neighborhood.

It brings me to a question I asked myself as soon as I thought of diving into Chicken Cornerť: I love my neighborhood. I have lived here since 1995 (minus two years in Iowa). But what does it mean to love a place that I have known only ten years, a place that is changing rapidly and in ways I don't fully understand?

One thing I can say is that there is a lot of exciting energy here right now. New energy. There are several collective nonprofit organizations that have popped up since the turn of this century.

These include, which seeks to make machines accessible to artists — it has a storefront on Alvarado; Echo Park Film Center, also with a storefront on Alvarado, has a microcinema and educational programs that help neighborhood teenagers make their own films; the Fallen Fruit collective — concerned by extension with environmental and public space issues, not to mention fallen fruit — has a presence in Echo Park.

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